Possible City Hall East sale forces charity to move

The proposed sale of City Hall East has Santa looking for new digs.

For the past 15 years, the Empty Stocking Fund has used part of the basement at the old government building on Ponce de Leon Avenue to operate Santa's Village, an annual toy distribution program for needy children. However, the building is on the market, so the village, which primarily serves children up to age 13 from Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties, will have to move.

The city, which bought the building  in 1990, is in talks with Jamestown Properties to buy the 2 million-square-foot complex.

"It's caused me a lot of sleepless nights," said Don Crawford, executive director of the Empty Stocking Fund. "The move creates a lot of unknowns."

He said the City Hall East location had several benefits, including free use of the space, its size, and proximity to Fulton and DeKalb residents. About 45 percent of the children are from DeKalb County. Gifts are also distributed to several other counties.

The city of Atlanta notified the Empty Stocking Fund officials several months ago of the proposed sale of City Hall East, said David L. Bennett, a senior policy adviser.

The nonprofit is in negotiations to lease space in Chamblee, near a MARTA rail station and bus line, but Crawford said that deal would be just for this year. Then the search and negotiations begin again for 2011.

"We'll have the same dilemma next year," he said. "We have several concerns about moving around all the time. There are challenges to recipients, who may not always know where to go; and challenges for our volunteers, who may not know where to go."

He said many of the volunteers come from Atlanta businesses, and some may find it inconvenient to travel far away to help, especially on a workday.

"There are a lot of these kinds of questions," he said.

The space is needed for only a few months each year, and landlords typically want longer leases, said Manda Hunt, the Empty Stocking Fund's development director. "We're such a lean organization, that the cost of a year-round lease would really impact us," she said. In the past year, the weak economy has caused financial contributions to decline about 12 percent.

The organization needs between 25,000 and 30,000 square feet to operate the program.

Last year, Santa's Village provided Christmas gifts to more than 52,000 children. Each child typically receives two toys, a clothing item and a book. The Empty Stocking Fund works with the Division of Family and Children Services to identify prospective families.

Denise Snowden, whose children once participated in the program, said a location in Chamblee shouldn't be a problem because of the closeness to MARTA and the interstates.

"Mothers are going to find a way to get there," said Snowden, of Atlanta, who now volunteers with the organization.  If they have to hitch a ride with someone else, mothers want to make sure their children have a good holiday, she said. "When it comes to those babies, they're going to get those gifts."